Pop culture has painted many stereotypical images of addiction and alcoholism for society to consume. These prejudicial images may misguide people into believing an addict can be easily identified based on their appearance or lifestyle choices alone.

However, many of these are not very accurate, nor are they fair as we now know that substance abuse is a disease that can affect anyone. No, not all heavily tattooed rock stars and high school dropouts are substance abusers. And no, not all who go straight to the bar after work or are homeless have an alcohol use disorder.

America has two drug epidemics with millions of people addicted to methamphetamines and opioids. We only think we know the face of addiction because of what we’ve seen on TV and the media. Without anyone even knowing, someone in your neighborhood could be addicted to prescription painkillers. An authority figure from your community could be struggling with alcoholism. A member of your own family may already be experimenting with street drugs and getting hooked.

Drugs are classified according to how they affect the body and mind. However, all drugs, whether they are depressants, hallucinogens, opiates, or stimulants, have an effect on the user’s emotional, mental, and physical state, particularly when chronically misused. Some addicts will be easier to identify. If you have a loved one you suspect is an addict, look for specific behavioral and physical changes that will vary depending on their drug of choice.

How to Identify an Addict

When abused, prescription medication and street drugs can affect people’s appearances and behavior, changing the way an addict looks the overtime. Common physical signs of addiction include noticeable weight loss and the appearance of being undernourished. Addicts who have recently used may have red eyes, dilated pupils, and depending on the drug, will either be over-active or slow to respond. They may become disoriented, have outbursts, and make no sense due to hallucinations and delusions.

Different drugs cause varying levels of alertness and cause either insomnia or excessive sleep. Addicts may begin to neglect their personal hygiene and often appear disheveled. In long-term methamphetamine users, the neglect of personal hygiene and poor nutrition is what causes extreme tooth decay, or what is referred to as “meth mouth.”

Heroin is a form of opioid that when used extensively, especially intravenous injection, may lead to recurring skin infections, particularly at injection sites. Skin infections may spread to other tissues in the body and result in gangrene. Because heroin addiction causes rapid weight loss, the addict’s facial skin will sag, and they will appear gaunt. Heroin also lowers heart rate and blood pressure, causing the skin to become pale or have a bluish tint. Heroin addicts will also typically have tell-tale burn marks around the fingers.

Skin infections and sores are also common in meth users because the drug affects their mental state, causing them to imagine they have bugs crawling all over their bodies. Hardcore meth users dig their nails into their skin, frantically trying to get rid of these “ice bugs” or “meth mites.”

Opioid addiction may involve painkillers such as oxycodone, fentanyl, and hydrocodone. When prescription pain medicine is abused, the signs are less noticeable than that of a meth or heroin addiction. Many people addicted to painkillers avoid detection for a long time; however, at some point, the habit will win and give itself away. The addict’s behavior may change; they may lose interest in activities they once loved, pull away from family and friends, and may appear sad and withdrawn.

If you suspect that someone you know has an opioid addiction, observe if they’re uncharacteristically cranky or moody. Are they dropping the ball when it comes to major responsibilities and up at odd hours? Have they become secretive, defensive, or even violent when asked if they have a problem?

If you’re worried a loved one may be addicted, and you want to learn more, give us a call at (619) 630-7844.

In A Soccer Mom, a Doctor, and a Priest Walk into a Bar… Alcoholism Can Affect Anyone, we continue the conversation on what addiction looks like and talk about identifying the signs of alcoholism.